Caputo: Chapter One—Modernity and the Eclipse of Truth—Part 1

Caputo starts this chapter off with this question: “Can anything really be taken seriously today as ‘truth’ if it is not science or at least modeled after science?”

And he raises this question especially as it relates to religion and tells us it will be his example throughout although he notes he could just as well used art or ethics—the same issues apply.  Has the Enlightenment reduced “religion” to a “fantasy” or type of “neurosis”?  His view is not dismissive of the Enlightenment at all.  If anyone thinks Caputo is taking some sort of anti-science or anti-Enlightenment stance here, he is not.  He writes:

“The view I take here is that the Enlightenment proved too much of a good thing.  It largely delivered on its promise to rid us of the hegemony of superstition and absolute monarchy and to replace it with science and civil liberties.  Nobody can argue against that.  But in the end, it went too far.  What the moderns call Pure Reason proved to be a new reign of terror over truth itself, which would elicit eloquent and magnificent howls of pain from the great Romantic poets and philosophers of the nineteenth century.  Pure Reason has a low tolerance for anything that is not Pure Reason, which is, I offer, a bit unreasonable.”

Caputo then goes on to note the difference the ancients had regarding “reason” and “wisdom.” 

“Greek and medieval thinkers were not against reason by any means, but they had integrated reason into a wider and richer concept, wisdom.  Later on, during the Enlightenment, so my argument goes, being rational acquired pride of place, which forced being wise to take a back seat.  In the version of postmodernism I am advancing—there are, predictably, many[reasons why], as I will explain—this move was unwise.”

He goes on to note that wisdom was understood to be a love—a desire.  A love and desire for the “true, the good, and the beautiful.”  Now, it does no good here to simply respond, “Well, that is great—we all should love those things—but that doesn’t make them true or objective.  It still means they are subjective and purely reports of inner states of mind and emotion.”  This is simply begging the question.  It is a waste of everyone’s time—and it’s not an argument—it is just a restatement of one’s already held beliefs.  Yawn.  We know that already.  He notes the importance of wisdom:

“It [wisdom] includes reason without stopping at reason; it includes truth but it does not reduce truth to that which is established by reason, and it does not exclude the good or the beautiful from the true.  The true, the good, and the beautiful hang together.”

And that in a nutshell was the totality of my argument for my criteria as to evaluating a narrative’s being “true” or not.  If it is not good and beautiful, it cannot be true.  And let’s be very clear about something: Any move to interpret or to assert that the above Caputo quote is defective, not true or the incorrect way to see the relationship between wisdom and reason is not (cannot be) based upon any superior fact or piece of evidence—it is an entirely metaphysical/faith-based/narrative-based move, period.  So rather than question-begging responses, why the one faith-based move (to keep the fact/value distinction) and not Caputo’s (to remove the distinction)? That is where one would need to make their case.  He goes on:

“Wisdom included insight and intuition as well as definitions and arguments (the true); it included action, living well, ethical and political wisdom (the good), not just professorial knowledge; and it included Plato’s idea that a life surrounded by beautiful things promotes the beauty of the soul (the beautiful).”

The early Christian teachers and theologians then came along and agreed with the ancient view of wisdom but offered that not only is God good, true, and beautiful but is the infinite embodiment or very ground of the good, the true, and the beautiful and those elements are derivative as recognized in creation and do not stand alone or by themselves.  So to seek God was to seek the good, the true, and the beautiful in its infinite and perfect expression.  And arguments for God or the Christian narrative encompassed all those elements and other narratives were thought to succeed or fail based upon how well they could be shown to be good, true, and beautiful.  To have asked an ancient, “But did this really happen?” or, “But what are the facts?” as some sort of final or sure way of knowing whether something was “true” or not would have not even been understood.  Were those aspects taken into account?  Yes.  Were they however the final arbiter of truth?  No.

This idea of wisdom goes to my prior example of Betty and her “true” mother.  The biological “fact” is that only one woman can be her birth or biological mother.  That aspect of motherhood is “true.”  No one discounts or doubts that—it is the one thing we can all agree upon.  But is that the only aspect or even the most important one as to what is “true” here?  Certainly not.  And recognizing that difference is called wisdom.  And here is what modernity did.  It said “fine.”  But, we can only call one aspect “true”—the “wisdom” aspect we will call subjective preference or opinion and in the new economy the “factual” aspect will take pride of place as the objectively true.  However, as can be clearly seen by my example, in most aspects of life, making this move is simply the opposite of being wise.  I’m reminded of the “three-strike” laws put into place where judges simply had to do what the “law” and the “facts” demanded and sentence people without the benefit of context or wisdom.  The gap between the law and justice is what we are talking about here.  Wisdom considers justice.  Reason alone can only consider the law, the facts, what “is” rather than what “should” be.  And that is the conundrum left to us by modernity and the fact/value distinction.
We should want to live in a world where wisdom means calling the biological “facts” in this context less important and less “true” than the matter of the adoptive (context over nature—ought over is) mother being the one who truly “mothered” loved and cared for Betty.  Again, that is called wisdom.  It takes context into account; it considers the good and the beautiful in the mix; it makes all three (true, good, beautiful) important.  We could also add that this is ultimately what makes something “reasonable.”

It takes reason into account but doesn’t make that aspect alone (let alone a specific western, white, male, and historically situated to a brief time frame, the 17th and 18th Centuries view of reason) the only or final arbiter of what we can consider to be, or call, “true.” 
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21 Responses to Caputo: Chapter One—Modernity and the Eclipse of Truth—Part 1

  1. Burk Braun says:

    Good luck with that wisdom thing! Just as long as it lets you believe in fantasies, it must be OK. To take Caputo seroiusly here, he is proposing in essence, that even if a concept like god is untrue on a basic scientific, correspondence level, it can be true on other levels, such as perhaps that of social solidarity and personal intuitive congeniality. If that is your definition of truth, I have a bridge to sell you.

    And to take you seriously, a truth must be beautiful and good. Is evolution beautiful or good? No, it is terrible and remorseless. Many other true things are that was as well. Another miscarriage of philosophy, among many others.


  2. RonH says:

    Evolution is terrible and remorseless? Nonsense. You're projecting modifiers that categorically do not apply. Evolution is neither terrible nor wonderful. It simply is. It is neither beautiful nor ugly, good nor evil. Any emotional reaction we have is itself merely a product of the process and cannot damn the process without damning the damnation of the process. If evolution cannot be beautiful and good, neither can it be terrible or remorseless.

    Of course, that's if I speak as a naturalist. As a Christian, I can believe evolution is both beautiful and terrible. Like a cheetah kill. Exquisite beauty and exquisite terror. These are Real, and True. You can't really appreciate evolution until you do it as a Christian.


  3. Burk Braun says:

    Hi, Ron-

    You outdo yourself. Emotions require Christianity? This is a curious theory of cognitive biology, as even steadfastly non-religious, let alone non-Christian, non-human animals have emotions which color their opinions of the world around them.

    On the general topic, how about we let beauty and goodness stand for beauty and goodness, and not mix “truth” into it? Different words, different meanings.


  4. Darrell says:

    Hi Burk,

    Well, as I mentioned in the post, you cannot simply beg the question here by assuming correspondence as the only or final way to say something is “true.” Of course you can, but it’s not an argument. There is no need to simply repeat yourself all the time and tell us over and over what we know you already believe. Again, yawn.

    As to evolution, he is not speaking to any single scientific truth or fact—as I’ve noted repeatedly now. When he speaks of the good, the true, and the beautiful, he is speaking of truth at the comprehensive level of a narrative (which would encompass evolution-and any other scientific finding). And this goes to Ron’s point—evolution is then seen differently depending upon how it is viewed from within the narrative one inhabits.

    If one were to tell me that life changes and evolves over time, they have told me a fact, which is “true”. No problem and no disagreement. If one tells me that because life changes and evolves over time, it means there is no God, the material is all there is, and there is no objective moral or ethical aspect to existence, then they have given me an interpretation and one I find cannot be true, good, and beautiful. Huge difference between one and the other.

    And you completely miss Ron’s point about emotions or the language we use to describe, but he can address that if he wishes.


  5. RonH says:

    Hi, Burk…

    You outdo yourself.

    Yay! I always strive to be more, if not better.

    Emotions require Christianity?

    Wha…? As they say on Wikipedia, “Citation needed”. There's been an epic communication fail here. I said nothing of the sort.

    You said: “Is evolution beautiful or good? No, it is terrible and remorseless.” Are you making an empirical statement? Can you measure the terribleness of evolution for me? You say that to take Darrell seriously, truth must be beautiful and good. And since evolution isn't beautiful and good but rather terrible and remorseless, Darrell is thus refuted.

    Except your assertion that evolution is terrible and remorseless is at best a wholly subjective feeling, and at worst completely nonsensical for a naturalist to attach that kind of emotion to what is just a mindless natural process.

    You're welcome to have your emotional responses, of course; but they're entirely useless as a refutation of what Darrell's saying.

    Normally, you either respond to Darrell with some kind of substantive critique, or pure (but amusing) rhetoric. This is neither, and isn't up to your usual form. So why don't you take it back to your desk and try again.


  6. Burk Braun says:

    Darrell, Ron-

    It should have been clear that what is sauce for the goose is likewise for the gander. If only Christians can pronounce things to be good or beautiful, and others are barred from doing so, we have far deeper issues than just the theological. It is not narratives per se that have the power of judgement, it is people intrinsically, whether influenced by one or other narrative, or none. Empiricism has the power to judge truth, but not, as you say, goodness or beauty, since it is not one of these fantastical narratives, but a philosophical method. For my part, I speak not only from a naturalist perspective, but from a humanist one, and, one might say, from a simply human one. And if something like evolution can be viewed from radically different perspectives in the sense of goodness and beauty, (as can pretty much anything), then what is the word truth doing getting mixed in this discussion? It is totally out of place.

    Darrell's project is the purest nonsense, just another effort to “expand” the meaning of perfectly well-defined words and ideas so that his pet idea can somehow be brought back into the realm of the “reasonable” to use Eric's formulation, or better yet, a “higher” truth, or some such position of respect which it in no way deserves. I am simply standing for standards of discourse and meaning so that neither we nor others get led astray in this theological thicket.

    “… truth at the comprehensive level of a narrative.”

    What does this mean? If you think about it, it means only that someone likes what this narrative is saying.. it is consonant with that person's views and experiences. A KKK narrative is “true” for some, perhaps not so “true” for others.. the absurdity and indeed harmfulness of using the word like this can not be over-emphasized.

    So, as long as the argument is being made to “expand” the notion of truth to subjective issues and vast landscapes of narrative motivation, imaginative construction, and unexamined suppositions, then I will be here to make the opposite argument.


  7. Darrell says:

    Hi Burk,

    “…If only Christians can pronounce things to be good or beautiful, and others are barred from doing so, we have far deeper issues than just the theological.”

    I don’t even know where you are getting any of this. You are so sure you know what other people are saying, you can’t even “hear” them. No one is even suggesting what you assert here. You have no idea what you are talking about, clearly. Zero. Nada.

    “…just another effort to “expand” the meaning of perfectly well-defined words and ideas…” By which Burk means “his” definition of words and ideas. How dare anyone suggest words and ideas might have other meanings.

    “… truth at the comprehensive level of a narrative.”

    “What does this mean?” Only the same thing I’ve said it means now in about the last 20 or so posts.

    “So, as long as the argument is being made to “expand” the notion of truth to subjective issues and vast landscapes of narrative motivation, imaginative construction, and unexamined suppositions, then I will be here to make the opposite argument.”

    But that is just the point. You are not making an argument—you are only begging the question and telling us what you already believe. Yawn.


  8. Burk Braun says:


    I am not begging any question. I am rejecting your and perhaps Caputo's assumption that the time is somehow ripe to redefine “truth” in some more permissive, holistic, Deepak-ish way. Or to revert to that if you take it to be the grand past style, before the depredations of the enlightenment. If you need to, perhaps you should make up a new word, like “truth-ish-ness”, or “good-n-beautiful”.

    The definition is fine as it is, per the web:

    in accordance with fact or reality.
    “a true story”
    synonyms: correct, accurate, right, verifiable, in accordance with the facts, what actually/really happened, well-documented, the case, so; More
    antonyms: untrue, false, fallacious
    rightly or strictly so called; genuine.
    “people are still willing to pay for true craftsmanship”
    synonyms: genuine, authentic, real, actual, bona fide, proper; More
    antonyms: bogus, phony, de facto, insincere, feigned
    real or actual.
    “he has guessed my true intentions”
    said when conceding a point in argument or discussion.
    “true, it faced north, but you got used to that”
    accurate or exact.
    “it was a true depiction”
    synonyms: accurate, true to life, faithful, telling it like it is, fact-based, realistic, close, lifelike

    Incidentally, I recently read what is perhaps Caputo's model, (?)- Horkheimer's “Eclipse of Reason”. It is unfortunately incoherent.. a sort of tone poem of crabbed late liberal communism, throwing darts at both religion and positivism, but to little point and no constructive end. Maybe reason remains fine and dandy, as does truth.


  9. RonH says:

    Hi, Burk…

    I'm still not sure I'm following your objection. But then, to be fair, I'm still not sure I'm following what Caputo is saying either. I've not read the book, and the case so far is a bit abstract, to say the least.

    He seems to be pushing back on the modern idea that only that which can be established by science or empirical means can be considered true. This is hardly an outrageous claim. Moral truths can be true, for example, without being empirically established.

    I'm not tracking on this argument very closely, but your making what looked like an objective statement about the terrible and remorseless nature of evolution struck me as wholly incongruous, so I flagged it.


  10. Burk Braun says:


    With evolution, as noted I was making a very general point about subjective attitudes… opinions, in short … that they can be applied to all sorts of things, and shouldn't be confused with “truths”. (My statement was clearly an opinion). Darrell and Caputo seem very busy making opinions and attitudes into “truths”, and it seems fundamentally misguided.

    I have to ask what you mean by a moral truth as well. I don't think there is any such thing. Again.. there are things we like, which we believe to be good, and those are regarded as moral. But what is the truth about them? Nothing more than that we like them, usually in the long, wise view, not the short, impulsive one. Fine.. I have nothing against good morals. But they are not the same as truth. The cultural relativity of such “truths” is only one signpost about this.


  11. Darrell says:

    Hi Burk,

    “…So, as long as the argument is being made to “expand” the notion of truth to subjective issues and vast landscapes of narrative motivation, imaginative construction, and unexamined suppositions…”

    You just assume these are subjective issues, imaginative, and unexamined.

    “…To take Caputo seroiusly here, he is proposing in essence, that even if a concept like god is untrue on a basic scientific, correspondence level…”

    You just assume truth is correspondence.

    These are clear examples of not making a case but simply begging the question—these are the very things disputed. We already know what you believe—you don’t need to keep telling us. We get it.

    To simply quote a dictionary definition in a philosophical conversation is quite amusing. Any philosophy professor of any worth at even the community college level would give you an F if such was your answer to the question: What is truth? Or, What is true?

    Any serious discussion or definition of truth would need to encompass many of the issues explored here:

    So here, like in your other criticisms, you miss the point completely. Before you begin telling everyone how wrong they are, you should at least try to understand what is being said and what is being explored. Just a thought.


  12. RonH says:


    So it isn't “true” that only empirically verifiable statements should be believed, it's just your opinion? Holy cow, Darrell, he finally gets it!

    I know, Burk. No moral truths. It's not true that you have a right to life… it's just a matter of opinion. Fortunately for you at the moment, a lot of other people share that opinion. Be sure you don't make them angry, or otherwise give them a good reason to change their attitude.

    Societies and cultures don't function on shared preferences, Burk. They require shared truths to cohere.


  13. Burk Braun says:

    To Ron…

    What is the difference between shared truths and shared preferences? There is none on the plane you mention. It is a prime instance of misusing the word “truth” to clothe a quite different concept.. a moral judgment of what you think is good. Perhaps even doublegood.

    There are cultures where killing off old people is good and necessary. Others where it is bad, and they try to keep them around as long as possible. Do the former not “realize a truth”? That would be absurd- where is this “truth” accessed and why do the latter “have” it and the former not? They have different calculations of utility, or preferences, or ecological pressures, etc. But truth has nothing to do with it.

    If you look up “moral truth” on google, you find, basically, a lot of religious sites. It is a purely religious concept, again seeking to clothe the subjective preferences (however idealistic, good, and beneficial) with the patina of objectivity and absoluteness … a sort of physics envy write large. Just as they clothe their priests in gold, and their legends as fact. It is a sad story, really.


  14. Burk Braun says:


    The Stanford site simply provides a long history of caveats, speculations, and false leads for a very simple concept. It returns time and time again to the basic correspondence definition of truth, from Aristotle onward. If you do not believe in reality, then.. truth will have to be defined differently. If sentences are different from propositions, blah, blah, blah. But if you are living in the real world, the dictionary will do just fine. The need that philosophers have to keep their minds occupied and trample over anything prior to their own blinding insights is hardly a sign that they are accomplishing anything. It is another instance where kicking a stone does far more to refute than any amount of bloviation.

    “There are also important connections between deflationist ideas about truth and certain ideas about meaning.” No kidding!


  15. Darrell says:

    The best you can offer is just more question-begging nonsense and the embarrassing dismissal of an entire branch of knowledge–the branch all PhD's are noted after and under which every other area of inquiry is enclosed–including biology.

    The ramblings of someone who is sure he is right, but doesn't have an argument to make and who constantly reveals he doesn't even understand the conversation.

    Just keep kicking those rocks.


  16. RonH says:

    Hi, Burk…

    To an extent, I agree with you… But I think it does matter whether or not a society believes something is a truth vs a preference, and furthermore what kinds of actions they're willing to take on the basis of it being a truth or preference.

    Is it wrong to kill off old people or not? If it's a matter of preference, then is it wrong to impose one's own preferences on others? Is it wrong to for Hutus to kill Tutsis, or is that just a preference? Is it wrong for me to completely ignore Hutus killing Tutsis on the grounds that my preference is to not risk anything of mine to stop someone else from exercising their preference?

    There's sort of a Hawthorne effect here, wherein morality only works at a societal level if people believe in moral truths instead of mere preferences. If it's my preference to decide not to serve brown people in my restaurant, or even the preference of my whole state, apparently that preference shouldn't be granted. But on what basis? Someone else's preference?

    This doesn't work. Has never worked.


  17. Burk Braun says:


    Thank you for getting this part of the discussion. You explicitly recognize the arbitrariness of social conventions of all these types, (not arbitrary in their utility, but in our ability to prefer them or not, and in their non-existence outside of social relations), but then advocate for setting this knowledge aside and instead adopting “beliefs” in the “truth” of some of them so that presumably the lower orders can be kept in line, or something like that. I think that sells your fellow-citizens short, and is in general a cynical, Straussian position.

    It sounds more like a belief in belief, than it does the Hawthorne effect. Anyhow, just because something is a preference doesn't mean that it is weak or irrational. I prefer life to death. We as a society can have and enforce our preferences, and that is precisely how mature adults should approach the civic & cultural issues of the day. Few of them are matters of fact or truth- most are matters of how we want society to work.. our preferences. Do we want old people to not only live but have something to live on? Then we arrange an insurance and pension scheme. Framing these issues in absolute terms is usually a bad thing and a disservice to the thought process.

    Slavery is a good example. The principles of freedom come down to how we want society to operate, how we would like to stand in relation to our fellow man & woman. And perhaps our instinctive empathy. They can be formulated in absolutes, but that doesn't explain anything or further the civic discussion. Since ironically we have ended up enslaved to some corporation or other anyhow.


  18. RonH says:


    Thank you for getting this part of the discussion.

    Now, now. Don't be attributing too much rationality to me. Where's the fun in that?

    I'm not at all saying these “conventions” have no existence outside of social relations. I'm saying I can't prove that moral truths are Truths instead of Preferences. But they seem to be to me; and if they are, we have a better basis for social cohesion. It's not that they're True because they work. It's that they work because they're True.

    I'm not saying “we should believe these things because it'll keep people in line”. That doesn't work, because then we're not really believing them — just pretending we do. You have to actually believe they're True, or they don't work. You know. Like magic. 😉

    In reality, I honestly, really, and for true do believe this stuff. So there.

    You think a society with only preferences will work. It hasn't yet, and I don't think it will. Frankly, even people who claim there are only preferences don't act like it. Once I express enough of a preference against their preference, their preference is to treat their preference like it wasn't a preference at all, but a Truth. Funny, that. Almost like we're wired that way. Hmmm.

    Meanwhile, I can't believe Darrell didn't post a commemorative blog entry about your concession that aside from empirically verifiable fact, there isn't any truth, only opinion. Which means that it's only opinion to state that one should only believe empirically verifiable things. Which means it's just your epistemo– er… opinion versus Darrell's. And that's what he's been saying all along.


  19. Darrell says:

    Ron, it was duly noted on the calendar in a private ceremony.


  20. RonH says:


    I'm afraid in the absence of any empirical evidence, I must conclude no such ceremony took place. You, therefore, are clearly deluded.


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